Eritrean and Ethiopian Christians gain a toehold in Halifax
On the afternoon of Saturday, December 15, 2018, I joined a small group of immigrant Christians to worship in a borrowed Halifax church. They included both Ethiopians and Eritreans, who normally worship separately. Ethiopians use the Amharic language; the Eritreans’ mother tongue is Tigrinya.
It all started back in the summer when I took our Somali mother, a Muslim, to buy halal meat (beef and goat) at a place in Windsor, half an hour from Kentville. While there I met a young Eritrean couple with two small girls, one of them named Peniel, “from the Bible,” they told me. The parents are Rahwa and Tsehaye, and they’ve been in Nova Scotia for eight years. Their mention of the Bible led to a lively conversation, since the only Eritrean refugee I knew before then was Muslim. It was Rahwa who phoned a few months later and invited me to attend their event.
So I got there a bit after four, having been snarled up in traffic. Only two men were present, even though the event was to have begun at four. I made a lame joke about “African time,” since anyone who deals with citizens of that hot continent is aware that they don’t worship the clock like we do. The men laughed with me.
These men, it turned out, were Simon Tedla and his brother Efrem, both of them brothers of Rahwa. Simon came to Canada a year ago because of, he says, “war and the government.” Like so many of his compatriots, he had been forcibly conscripted into military service but managed to escape. An older brother, Yohanes, has served as a soldier in Eritrea for 24 years. With a wife and three children he can’t escape as readily as Simon did. Conscription in Eritrea is harsh, pays very little, and continues indefinitely, according to several news sources. Some liken it to slavery. A recent peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea hasn’t yet resulted in the hoped-for freedom. Simon, however, said there may be a small window of opportunity right now, and the family is hopeful that Yohanes may be able to get out too. Normally the border is sealed, and escape attempts often end in prison or death. “He’s feeling angry sometimes,” said Simon. A sister, Senait, is now in Uganda with her husband; her Nova Scotia siblings hope to sponsor her also.
Make a joyful noise!
On Sundays the Eritreans worship at an established Baptist church in the city. Rahwa sometimes interprets the English for newer Eritreans.
That Saturday the pastor was an Ethiopian, Bayssa Belachen. He told me his group is founding a new congregation on the edge of Halifax, using a church named Grace Chapel. Its owners use it in the morning, and the Ethiopians in the afternoon. Rev. Belachen preaches in Amharic.
This narrative suddenly felt familiar to me, and here’s why: In 1950, the van Arragons became the sixth family to join a small group of Reformed Dutch immigrants who made use of the Orangeville Presbyterian Church. The Presbyterians gathered in the morning; home missionary Rev. André spoke to us, his small flock, in the afternoon. He not only preached, but after announcing a hymn (often “I Love to Tell the Story”), he got down from the pulpit and accompanied the singing on piano. We were not quite refugees from civil war, like the Eritreans, but World War II certainly played a major role in sending us across the ocean.
Now here’s the Eritreans and the Ethiopians, beginning in the same small way. Formerly on opposite sides of a war, they had decided to gather in Christian unity. As the women trickled in gradually, there were two more of Simon and Rahwa’s siblings, sisters Yodit and Selam, among them. It wasn’t long before one of them moved across the front, praying and waving her arms. Then the singing began.
The songs – melodic, emotional, rhythmic – were accompanied by taped music, with no live instrumentalists in sight yet. “Ewadisahalehu Bezema / Ewadisahalehu Alake . . .” “I praise you by my voice; I praise you my God.”
That song goes on to acknowledge human inability to express who God is. It was mainly the women who sang, bodies swaying, clear high tones joyfully voicing their people’s familiar songs. In this there was little similarity to those long-ago Dutch immigrants who stood poker-straight or sat stiffly while singing. My memory suggests that visible emotion would have been highly suspect back then, while the unstructured format of the Halifax event would have been deemed scandalous. I wonder what our parents and grandparents thought back then of Bible texts like “Make a joyful noise to the Lord!” Were they never tempted to dance down the aisles? Those stolid Dutch were a world removed from today’s African migrants. And yet they, too, worshipped one Lord, one faith, one birth. And they shared the same powerful love of music, albeit of a different kind.
When I left at 5:30, another group of eight or 10 was arriving to join in the music. The pastor had yet to speak. I wonder if this is how the Israelites of old gathered in those days before wristwatches, early arrivals spending their time just singing the songs of Zion. Did the priests offer sacrifices all day long as penitent believers dribbled in? Was it late afternoon or evening when the boy Jesus stayed behind to discuss theology with the religious leaders at the temple? Did Pentecost happen at seven a.m. or towards noon? As with these immigrant worshippers in Halifax, the exact hour was irrelevant.